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How I Came to Haunt My Parents
By Natalee Caple, Emily Schultz, Brian Joseph Davis
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2011 Natalee Caple
All rights reserved.
How I Came to Haunt My Parents
IT WAS IN THE SUMMER that I should have turned nine and we were at the big house that sat above the lake. The staircase in the house was so long that I recall it taking half an hour to cross from the top floor to the bottom.
My little brother Evan and I walked the dog along the shoreline in the morning and in the evening before dinner. The sound of the water washing the little stones and rubbing the grasses together made me calm and made him happy. Our little dog was a brown terrier cross and he chased the seagulls into the water with a particularly military responsibility. His name was Pocket, but I can't remember who named him or why he was called Pocket.
The summer I disappeared it rained almost every day and the lake got so stirred up and rose in big swells so that it was possible to imagine it was an ocean or a sea. We scavenged the shore for treasure, but mostly we found pop bottles and newspapers turned to mulch. The air smelled of worms after the rain. Pocket was new and teething and he nipped and roughhoused our hands and feet so we took him for many walks to tire him out and distract him. I was in love with him and smuggled him into my bed because when he was sleepy he would not bite, but would instead curl snug against my neck and huff warmly into my ear.
Evan had a black eye when we arrived. The boys at school had been giving it to him for being small. Evan was born two weeks late but still he only weighed six pounds and he had stayed small. If you asked him about it he wouldn't tell you who had hit him. He still thought of those boys as his friends. I thought that was a sign of how childhood was like prison.
One day we went out late because it had been pouring in the morning. We left for our walk just before lunch. The ground, which was half sand half stone, was wet and it sucked at our feet as we walked. Water eclipsed the shore and we scrambled in the weedy excess of the space between the trees and our usual path. Seagulls barked back at Pocket. Twenty minutes from the house we let Pocket off his leash thinking that it was too mucky for him to run far from us. He headed into the trees. We walked on. Evan whistled Pocket back once or twice to check that he was still close by. It was getting dark again and I wondered if we would make it home before it rained, but I had a curious feeling that I wanted to get caught in the storm. For a few minutes I was lost in a fantasy about being swept out onto the lake and clinging with Evan to an overturned boat while Pocket barked for us on the shore. I imagined my parents with wet clothes plastered to their bodies, leaning into the squalling wind and screaming our names over and over again.
"Pocket! Pocket! Pock—eettt!" called Evan. "Wheet, whheeet, whheeeet," he whistled. "Pocket. Here boy. Come here, Pocket. Come here right now!"
But Pocket didn't come. A rumble and crack of the sky made me stop Evan by catching his shoulder. Together we looked across the water and we saw a curtain of rain descend and begin the rapid traverse towards the shore. The line of rain was so clear it was like a deliberate advance. Since we couldn't leave Pocket, we entered the forest hoping every minute to find shelter from the rain that was now tearing leaves from branches and bending the long grass and pelting our heads and shoulders and arms.
Inside the forest, under the trees the sound of the rain was muffled. Stray drops broke through the thick mesh of leaves. We found Pocket almost immediately, sitting up straight on a very large black rock. The rain was so hard the bugs were hiding. Evan and I joined Pocket on the rock. Evan was shivering.
"Are you cold or are you scared?" I asked him.
"I'm cold," he said. "I'm a little bit scared."
The wind whistling at the top of the trees made me nervous because it sounded like a person whistling.
"Who is that?" Evan whispered. "Do you hear that? Someone said Baked Alaska."
"It's the wind." I said curtly.
"I'm hungry. Let's go home."
So we exited the forest and picked our way across the pocked sand and flattened grasses to the house. When the side of the house came into view it struck me that the whole thing was leaning towards us almost as if it was listening. Evan sniffed beside me and I looked down to see that he was going blue around the lips. I carried Pocket in my arms so that we could move faster and so he would not run away again. Not far from the house Evan grabbed my hand and squeezed it tight and pointed at something. It was a shiny black ball sitting there in front of us. It was about the size of a baseball, but it looked like a ball from our father's pool table. Evan wouldn't move or let go of my hand so I handed Pocket to him and stretched myself until I could grasp the ball. The little white face had a window in it and a word floated in the window. The word was Yes. As soon as I held it Evan threw my hand down, released Pocket and ran to the house.
When I arrived at the front door I could hear my parents arguing in their standard way about nothing.
"Who would put a lion in a coconut?" my father accused. "How would a lion even fit in a coconut?"
"I thought it was a metaphor," my mother answered, throwing something hard against something soft and then making noise with the cutlery in the drawer.
"A sexual innuendo then. What does it matter if I want to sing the wrong words to myself?"
As I stepped into the doorway of the kitchen all the air sucked out of the room, whispered past me into the great hall. My mother leaned against the sink in bleached jean shorts, a revealing T-shirt and an apron that said: Kiss the Cook. Her hair hung over her eyes, shielding them from me. My father collapsed into a chair and leaned back until its front legs left the floor. He was wearing his golf clothes even though there wasn't a golf course for towns and towns and towns from there. It was a way of protesting. A way of saying, I'm not really here with you. His smile, when he looked at me, was embarrassed. It said: I know my daughter shouldn't hear me talk to her mother like an idiot. I know I'm being a bad guy, but I'm not really a bad guy.
"I found something," I said.
EVAN WOULD NOT SLEEP IN the room with me anymore. So he slept with our mother in the room down the hall from me and our father slept in the room below me. I could hear his loud snores vibrate through the wall. I woke up over and over again the first night. I clicked on the bedside lamp since there was no one else to wake. I asked the ball questions and shook it and read the answers. Then I tried again to sleep.
"Will my parents get divorced?"
"Is there anything I can do to stop them from getting divorced?"
"What can I do to stop them from getting divorced?"
"Best you don't know."
"Will Evan get bigger?"
"I mean will he stop being runty?"
"Will I be tall?"
"Will I get married?"
"Do you like being an eight ball?"
"Will purple monkeys fly through my window tonight and tear up the sheets and leave me buckets of money?"
"Will I live to be one hundred?"
At 5 a.m. the birds started to bustle and hassle each other. I felt cold and so I stood to close the window. On the lawn in front of the house a man lay sleeping on his back, his scrappy clothing soaked around the edges with the dew. He looked like a sad clown without his makeup.
"Dad! Dad! There's someone in our yard!" I yelled, panic rushing up my skin. I stomped my feet on the floor. My father charged into the room in his pajama bottoms, grabbing the window frame to stop himself from falling out of the open window. I pointed to the body below.
"Christ," he said. He turned away and started to trudge back to his room.
"Aren't you going to make him go away?" I asked.
He left me there. I looked again and I could still see the clown, tucked into a fetal position, sleeping underneath my window. I looked back and forth between my open door and my open window and then I closed them both and went back to bed.
At breakfast my parents had an argument about whether kangaroos were mammals or not. Evan would not meet my eyes.
"Evan, stand up against the wall. I want to measure you," my mother said. She had a peculiar look on her face. I noticed as Evan stood that his shirt was tight and the legs of his pants were inches from the floor. He stood against the doorframe and my mother put a book on his head and marked the spot with a pencil. She measured the distance from that mark to the floor with a measuring tape and frowned. Then she smiled and said, "Evan you've grown five inches since we got here."
"That's not possible," my father said and he checked the distance himself twice before he tossed the tape measure on the counter and said again, "That's not possible."
"It is possible," squeaked Evan. "I'm tall! I'm tall. I'm as tall as the other kids."
He looked at me with a weird sort of appreciation as if I had done something to make this happen.
"We should walk Pocket," he said and he took my hand and squeezed.
I still remember that warm grip bending my fingers. When I look now at the hand I used to have I wriggle those bands of light and I feel myself as if I am still defined by that little embrace.
Out of deference to Evan I left the Magic 8 Ball behind while we walked Pocket along the shore. The water of the great lake was completely flat and reflected the sky back in minute detail. I had never seen the lake so flat nor heard it so silent. Evan's step was so light with happiness he seemed to float beside me. He chattered as we walked, saying all the things that he could do now that he was the same size as the other boys. It made me realize how he had nursed sadness and hurt for a long time. Thinking of him being bullied, being left out, being lonely made my chest ache.
Halfway along our usual route he stopped and took my hands and looked into my eyes, a weirdly romantic intensity in his expression.
"I think you should get rid of it now," he pled.
When we returned to the house our mother was weeping on the steps. Her whole body shuddered and her face was soaked and her hands were soaked from wiping her face. Her shirt was spattered with tears. There were tears on her knees and running down her legs. She looked at me and opened her mouth and tried to say something, but it was so garbled by crying I couldn't understand. Evan ran over and hugged her. I stood there watching them. Evan started to cry and she cried harder holding him. Our father appeared in the doorway and his face contorted. He covered his mouth and turned back into the house.
"What is it?" I said. "What happened?"
They ignored me. Pocket lay down on the ground at their feet and started to whimper.
IT WAS SOME TIME BEFORE I understood that they couldn't see or hear me anymore. Much of the time my eyes were unable to focus and I saw them through a cross-eyed haze. I heard their voices as if they were carried across the lake to me by the wind. What they said was always muffled and incomplete. Much of the time I heard their three voices sobbing. At times I would look down on my body and see wounds there. My thumbs disappeared and reappeared at inconsistent intervals. A black hole in my stomach opened and closed, threatening at times to topple me by cutting me in half.
At times I could see clearly through a shifting tunnel in my vision, a circle of clarity. When that happened I ran to the mirror to see myself. Each time I saw a different specter of my potential death. Once there was a stick through my eye and once my arm was ripped off and spouting blood like some knight in a Monty Python film. Once my jaw was missing and once there were enormous pieces bitten out of my torso. The worst was when I was just naked and bruised and wet. At first I thought I would never get used to it. I imagine most dead people feel that way. I felt so angry I split apart and fell apart and still I was totally dead.
I ran up to my parents and yelled, "I'm here! I'm here! Do something!" Then it was like a hard nut of resistance formed in my chest or like there was a little me constantly screaming, No! inside my head. Then I was sure I could figure out some way to make myself alive again. Maybe I could do a good deed or negotiate with someone. I kept waiting for someone to show up and explain my situation. I planned speeches and I practiced my arguments. I tried to remember what I could about Heaven Can Wait and what Warren Beatty did when he found out he was dead. Then I cried because I watched that movie with my mother one afternoon when I was home from school with the chicken pox. And she made popcorn and told me about how Warren Beatty was a louse and had affairs and his sister was crazy and I loved sitting there listening to my mother gossip, hearing about an adult world so far beyond me. But no one came. No God or angel or spirit or anyone. I felt the most alone that I ever felt. But after a while I wondered how long I had been dead and if it was now longer than I had been alive. And I healed from my own death the way you heal from someone else's. Death goes on, you might say.
I spied on my family. I didn't know what else to do with myself and I missed them so much. My brother was muscular and playing sports and my parents changed course and began sleeping together again. I tried to connect with them. They kept coming back to the same house every summer and it was like I disappeared while they were elsewhere and then they arrived and I awoke from a terrible sleep, shook it off and remembered that I was dead. I didn't get any older, but I matured somehow. Still Evan surpassed me, turning nine, ten, eleven. He became so beautiful. His hair went curly and grew long and his eyelashes swept his cheeks. He bronzed so lovely in the summer as he played with Pocket in the sand. Pocket grew up too and filled out and even went a bit gray. I told myself that time was no longer my concern.
One night I sat in the armchair by the window in the room where my parents lay in bed and I listened to their conversation.
"Sometimes it's like she was never here. Am I a terrible person?"
"I called to make a reservation at the steakhouse and I said two adults one child and I thought, that's right, that's the truth; I wasn't upset."
I saw my mother naked in the bed with my father, hanging onto him and whispering.
"Why did we have to go on? When she was born do you remember how we went in to stare at her all the time and we talked about how we couldn't believe that there was ever a point when she wasn't part of us? And when I was pregnant with Evan I worried that I couldn't love another baby as much as I loved her. And now, I mean we had reached the end. I think we would have broken up within the year. But she died. She died and we got back to life. I didn't think that I could live without her. How could we have saved ourselves?"
"We needed to not fall apart, maybe for Evan or for her, for her memory. We, I remembered how it all was when we were pregnant waiting for her and when we had one baby and the money was enough and I still thought I was going to get some great job and you still thought I was a great dad and a great husband. I used to think about her all day. I just wondered idly like, what kind of job would she have when she grew up and what kind of pizza would she like and I imagined golfing with her and going to the movies. I used to wonder if she would be gay and I thought about how cool I would be with that and how she would tell all her friends that I was great. We would hang out together and her friends would like me and we'd all go to Pride together."
"You thought she was gay?"
"No. I just thought I wouldn't care. That it might be cool. Her friends would be cool."
"Do you think gay people are cooler than straight people?"
"Well, maybe. Is that bad?"
"Did you think about Evan that way?"
"No. I didn't want either of them dating boys."
"When she was three she used to tell a story about how when she grew up she would have a baby and she would rock the baby and kiss the baby and say, Shhh, sweetheart. And she told me I would come to visit and see her baby."
Excerpted from How I Came to Haunt My Parents by Natalee Caple, Emily Schultz, Brian Joseph Davis. Copyright © 2011 Natalee Caple. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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